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Troy Kotsur is an Academy-Award winning actor and producer.

Academy-Award winning actor Troy Kotsur has been featured in blockbuster films, Broadway shows, and hit TV shows throughout his career. He’s also been a tireless advocate for the Deaf community, both in front of and behind the cameras.

Troy sat down with host Jay Ruderman to discuss the importance of authenticity in portrayal of Deaf and disabled characters, and the vital importance of learning ASL at a young age. Special thanks to interpreter Justin Maurer for his help with this episode. 

Also be sure to check out Troy’s Documentary Film, To My Father, which depicts his journey to winning an Oscar and his father’s inspiring influence on him, despite a tragic accident.

Troy sat down with host Jay Ruderman to discuss the importance of authenticity in portrayal of Deaf and disabled characters, and the vital importance of learning ASL at a young age.

To watch Troy’s latest documentary film, click here.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Jay Ruderman:

Hey all my listeners, this episode is a very special one. We are honored to have the academy award winning actor – Troy Kotsur with us as a guest.  I spoke with Troy through his ASL interpreter, Justin Mauer, so the voice you will be hearing throughout this episode will be his, but the words and thoughts are all Troy’s of course. If you want to get a better sense of how this happened – maybe you know ASL and would like to see Troy sign directly, or you’d like to share it with a friend or relative who is deaf – just head over to YouTube.com forward slash @therudermanfamilyfoundation. Ok, and on to the show.

Troy Kotsur:

I remember my dad’s last sentence before he passed, and I asked my dad, “Hey, what do you want me to do?” And he said, “Just do what’s best for your children.” That was his last sentence before he passed actually. It was unforgettable. “Just do what’s best for your child.” And so I do my best for my child. I’ve tried my best as a dad.

Jay Ruderman:

Troy Kotsur is an Academy Award-winning actor. He’s acted on Broadway, in hit shows like Criminal Minds, and the award-winning film CODA. But that’s not his voice you’re hearing. It’s his interpreter. Troy is a proud member of the deaf community. He had the support he needed as a child, but he said that’s not the case for all deaf children.

Troy Kotsur:

Most hearing parents of deaf children are not willing to learn sign language to communicate with their children. Instead, they try and “fix” them. And so I think it’s an important message for families out there to hear. It’s not just about deafness, but it just it’s about love and communication and caring about what’s best for your children.

Jay Ruderman:

In spite of his solid family foundation, Troy’s success didn’t come easily.

Troy Kotsur:

I really wanted to show that we have diversity and that we are talented deaf actors. We’re actors who just happened to be deaf. I just happened to be a deaf man. And I really had to keep the faith through the years. It was really tough. There was a lot of struggle.

Jay Ruderman:

That lack of representation impacts not only deaf artists, but the authenticity of the stories themselves.

Troy Kotsur:

Really, it’s almost impossible to match our authentic performance, if you know what I mean, because we have that entire lifetime of that lived experience. We know all the nuance of that lived experience.

Jay Ruderman:

And it’s not just having deaf actors in front of the cameras. That diversity of experience is vital in all aspects of production. Troy has made it part of his work to ensure that other deaf artists have more access than he did.

Troy Kotsur:

I want more deaf professionals so I can die with a smile on my face and see that Hollywood’s finally improved and there’s more room for us deaf professionals to be creative.

Jay Ruderman:

Welcome Academy Award winner, Troy Kotsur, to All About Change. And we are also joined by ASL interpreter, Justin Mauer. Good to see you.

Troy Kotsur:

Nice to see you too, Jay. Hello everyone. Thank you for having me.

Jay Ruderman:

Troy, you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you’ve suffered from language deprivation as a child due to lack of ASL. And you say that learning ASL saved your life. What is language deprivation?

Troy Kotsur:

I’m extremely fortunate. When I was younger, I did not have language deprivation, but I had so many friends that I grew up with who were deaf who happened to have experienced language deprivation. Most hearing parents of deaf children are not willing to learn sign language to communicate with their children. Instead, they try and “fix” them. And so if you don’t have access to language before you enter elementary school, these children can really be left behind. It’s so important to have that language exposure at a young age. And the reason why I say ASL saved my life is because I was able to learn how to read and write math and all of the subjects in school basically through ASL. And so ASL is the language that taught me.

ASL is not a written language, but teachers using ASL were able to communicate with me visually. And that’s why it was extremely important for me as a child. And it’s important for folks to be aware of that. Over 30 states have recently passed a law saying that children from zero to five must be learning a language before entering kindergarten. I’m very pleased to hear that and hope that it expands to all 50 states.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s wonderful. And I wanted to ask you, why do you feel that it is important that hearing people have access and learn ASL?

Troy Kotsur:

Well, it’s a very friendly way to communicate in your environment wherever you happen to go. I’ve noticed that ASL is becoming more and more popular at the high school level as well as colleges and universities. It’s being considered as a foreign language in foreign language departments. Or when I go to a restaurant or to Starbucks or the airport, it’s so nice to bump into someone who happens to learn sign language in any situation. And so there’s less and less emphasis on using a pen and paper or texting on a phone to communicate. So it’s wonderful to be bilingual, to have English and sign language together and be able to go seamlessly through life that way. ASL is really a gift that folks are able to learn a different perspective. And as deaf people, we have our own culture and we have our own language. And so it’s wonderful to increase awareness and for hearing folks to learn our language.

Jay Ruderman:

And just to be clear, ASL is for Americans, that if I go to another country, let’s say Mexico or Canada, well, I don’t know about Canada, but if you go to Mexico, their sign language is going to be different than American sign language.

Troy Kotsur:

Yes, you’re correct. It’s a myth that sign language is universal and there’s one universal language. There’s over 300 different types of sign languages worldwide, including Japan, China, Russia, all over the African and European continents. And it’s fascinating. It’s truly amazing. But just like spoken languages, every country has its own sign language as well as dialects.

There is one type of international sign language that does exist for international conferences that we’ve developed so we can understand each other. And that is amazing that we’re able to communicate worldwide, but folks aren’t quite completely fluent in this international sign yet. And American sign language isn’t standardized either. We have dialects in different states and even different signs in different regional areas. And so it’s similar to your spoken dialects and accents. You can hear if someone’s from the south or from the east coast or you have a New York accent, we have something similar in sign language. And so we can see that a deaf person from New York would use a different type of sign than someone from California. So it’s nice to have that diversity in America too.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s so fascinating. I did want to tell you that my daughter, who is hearing, did learn ASL in high school. I don’t know if she became fluent, but I’m so proud that she took that course and saw it as something important to study.

Troy Kotsur:

Absolutely. It’s extremely important. I’m so proud that ASL is becoming more and more popular all over the country. And as you mentioned, your daughter is learning sign language. My daughter’s a real life CODA. She’s hearing. She’s a child of deaf adults. Her first language was sign language before she could speak. And so she was bilingual growing up. And my interpreter Justin is a CODA too. His parents were deaf and he grew up with sign language as his first language.

Jay Ruderman:

So I wanted to ask you about entertainment. You’ve said that in interviews that when you grew up, that captioning was not common. What type of entertainment were you interested in as a child and how did you consume that entertainment?

Troy Kotsur:

When I was younger, TV became my best friend because everyone in my family were hearing, they were busy. Sometimes they didn’t really have their skills and sign language quite developed yet. So when I was young, I remember watching Tom and Jerry cartoons because it was visual communication and had a lot of action. Imagine watching something like Godzilla as a kid. I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. There’s so much action in Godzilla.” I was looking for something that was fun to watch visually and that would influence my imagination as a storyteller. My friends and I told stories to each other recounting what we had watched. There was no close captioning, but there were silent films, Charlie Chaplin for example.

In silent films, they’d have these captions pop up so that hearing and deaf audiences could enjoy them. And then when the talkies came out, the deaf community became segregated, a segregated audience that didn’t have any access to TV or film and we had to wait until the ’80s and ’90s really before access was improved. And now we’re able to see all films just like hearing people can. With our film CODA that was released, it was a perfect example of bringing these two worlds together. And so we were able to share our cultures and our languages in the same place at the same time. And so we were able to gain this mutual understanding. And that’s what you saw on screen and that’s what you saw an audience’s reaction to our film.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s so great. We’ve made so many advances that are positive for all communities. I also wanted to ask you, what inspired your interest in performing?

Troy Kotsur:

Well, when I was younger as I mentioned earlier, from watching Tom and Jerry. Imagine reading a book and getting that knowledge and spreading that knowledge. I was spreading that storytelling to my friends on the school bus on the way to the school for the death and all of my friends would laugh and feel good. It was just fun to tell these stories, recounting these Tom and Jerry episodes. So my inspiration began from there and continued through the years.

I was really looking for a place where I’d have the opportunity to be an artist or work in TV or film, and I realized that 99.9% of folks working in TV and film were hearing including the folks at the studio level. So it was nearly impossible for a deaf actor to get these opportunities, and it was really hard for me to find work. So the right place for me to work was the theater stage. And then when Marlee won the Oscar in the late ’80s, it was a huge step for Hollywood. And then after our film CODA, I’m seeing more and more opportunities and awareness in ASL beginning to grow and folks popping up in different TV shows. Alaqua Cox, who’s indigenous and deaf just appeared in Marvel’s Echo on Disney Plus. And so I’m seeing more and more opportunities beginning to grow.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s awesome. Troy, you’re from Arizona. There’s been a lot of back and forth about the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. Why do you think that school has been under attack?

Troy Kotsur:

So I grew up attending the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf and Blind. It’s under ASDB, the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, and that’s where I had my first exposure to sign language, and just like I mentioned, learning all of these subjects through education in ASL. I can’t imagine these schools shutting down. As we mentioned, language deprivation and young deaf folks struggling to find their, there are so many schools all over the country and all over the state, and so I’m wondering why they’ve targeted a school that has focused in specific education for the deaf. I’m concerned about the future of our deaf children. I want them to have access to education in their natural language.

I remember meeting these parents that had two young deaf children and who were quite nervous about the threat to Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind. And their parents had learned sign language, they were in tears and so worried about where their daughter could go because these deaf kids need a social environment and the best place for that for deaf kids is at the School for the Deaf. So my heart goes out to them so I needed to make my voice heard and I went to the state capitol in Arizona to help them fight for continued funding for their school. And I’m grateful that the senators there appeared to listen to our voices. It was an interesting experience. I never thought that we’d have issues like that exist and those types of budget cuts for schools for the deaf. Because I’m data, I know what’s best for deaf kids being deaf myself.

Regarding why they are trying to threaten the funding for that school, is because they’re trying to put everyone with disabilities into the same category and put all disabled kids into some type of statewide special ed program. And so disabled people are not a monolith. We’re not all the same. We have different needs. My wife is an ASL teacher. She noticed that they sent quite a few special ed kids into her class thinking that ASL would be a great fit for all disabled kids, which it isn’t. It’s just another language, right? And so there needs to be that new type of consideration, a way of thinking and improvements, that we’re not a monolith and we have specific needs that schools for the deaf are currently fitting. And I hope that the school will not be under threat again. This happens to be in my hometown when I grew up and it would be heartbreaking to see that school close. So I think it’s important that it is their right to have education in their language of ASL, and no one should take that right away.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, I want to commend you on your activism. And I hope that the school remains successful and opened and a resource for children who need it. I wanted to ask you, what do you think you gained from your time there?

Troy Kotsur:

The social aspect obviously because we were able to communicate in our own language, so we have that mutual understanding. 24 hours a day we were able to communicate in ASL. Many kids live in the dorms just because kids live all over the state, and so they tend to stay at the school during the week and on weekends go back to their families. And so we had that socialization, we had sport., our coaches were fluent in sign language. Our teachers were fluent in sign language. And so really that’s the best atmosphere. That was the best benefit for me, to develop my own identity, my own language, and my skill as a storyteller. That came from socialization with other deaf kids and storytelling on the bus and storytelling on campus rather than having to wait sometimes days or weeks to even see another deaf person. And so that social aspect I think is invaluable.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s great. So I understand you went from Phoenix to Gallaudet University, which is a university for the deaf. What do you think you learned from the school in terms of studying performing arts?

Troy Kotsur:

Gallaudet University was a place where everyone from all the schools for the deaf from around the United States are all in one place, like in one fishbowl. Imagine that. It was amazing. It was an unforgettable experience. And so on the theater stage, everyone signed including the directors and the actors, and that was my first experience on a production like that. And through the years, I wanted to experience more of the outside world and really that’s why I would take any roles I could get.

One role was Of Mice and Men, a Deaf West Theater and I played the role of Lenny, it just so happened that this was the only place where they integrated hearing and deaf actors to perform on stage. And I thought, “I’ll leave Gallaudet just to perform in this Deaf West Theater, [inaudible 00:16:54] and I’ll eventually go back.” And I didn’t because I got more and more work as an actor in LA with Deaf West Theater. I didn’t want to feel like I was limiting myself. I wanted to have that experience of traveling, learning on the job. And that was really a huge benefit for me of being a part of Deaf West Theater, was having that real world experience. Imagine you’re like a rat underneath the busy city and you can navigate this busy city. So that was me. I was that rat, and here I am.

Jay Ruderman:

So Troy, I wanted to ask you, you mentioned that long before CODA, you were involved with Deaf West Theater, which uses both spoken English and ASL. What was the origin of that coming about?

Troy Kotsur:

Back in 1971, there’s the theater called the National Theater of the Deaf. That was the one place that was a professional touring theater company where deaf actors had opportunities. There was a gentleman who was watching these deaf folks signing and he said, “Hey, I think hearing people should be able to see how this works and have access to these plays as well.” So they started as an experiment to have simultaneous voicing on stage with the deaf actors and musicals as well. And so it was great for both hearing and deaf audience members to be able to enjoy watching these plays by having access to both languages simultaneously.

Marlee Matlin and I recently hosted the Media Access Awards just a few months ago, and that was the first time there were two deaf hosts hosting an award show. And of course there was nothing wrong with that. How did that work? We had our interpreters simultaneously voice for us at the same time. And so folks that weren’t fluent in sign language could also enjoy experiencing us as hosts of this award show. So it was a similar concept on stage. It was no difference. Really, you can watch the sign language and hear the sign language being interpreted at the same time. So we worked together with these hearing voice actors. And we had two language, it was a marriage between English and sign language, and we just had to learn that dance together on the theater stage.

Jay Ruderman:

I wanted to ask you about the challenges of collaborating or acting with both deaf and hearing actors.

Troy Kotsur:

Well, the biggest challenge would actually be syncing up the sign language with the spoken English. So when you read a phrase in English, you have a period. And sometimes the signs might be a little delayed or vice versa. Sometimes the spoken English phrase is a little longer than the signed phrase. And so the biggest challenge is how to have that punctuation end at the same time and to have something start and end at the same time seamlessly. So that’s the biggest challenge. And it takes time and it takes a lot of rehearsal to get that to be as seamless as possible.

Most of the time, hearing actors don’t have that experience working with the deaf. And so we have a team of consultants who will teach them their lines as well as the translations. Sometimes when the director is watching, if the director happens to be hearing, it just takes time for it to be seamless and it takes rehearsal and then it becomes magic. It’s great for everyone. And audiences really enjoyed our performances.

Some of our shows even went as far as Broadway around the world. There was a play called Big River and audiences really enjoyed it. And it was a musical in sign language. We toured the world. We went to Japan, we went to all 50 states. We were on Broadway. There was another play called Spring Awakening that was also on Broadway with hearing and deaf actors working together. And so it was such a rich experience and a great opportunity. So we can find a way to work together. And that applies to film and TV as well. There’s always a way to work together and make it seamless. It’s just important that you have a deaf eye or an ASL consultant behind the camera to watch the monitor and make sure the sign language is in frame and the signs are accurate and all of the above.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, it’s obvious that you’ve put a tremendous amount of work into your craft and it shows from what you have accomplished in your career. I want to talk a little bit about casting and what casting has looked like over the course of your career. Maybe you can start by talking about what casting looked like when you first started out trying to get roles.

Troy Kotsur:

Well, I remember the first time I auditioned and I would be extremely nervous whether there’d be an interpreter there or not. My second question would be, “Does this interpreter know anything about this role?” Because sometimes they’ll just throw an interpreter in without any preparation or experience, and I really want to express myself and the interpretation needs to match the emotions and my signing and my facial expressions. So that was a challenge of how can I be as convincing as possible with some interpreter that I may have never met before.

And so I remember my addition for Criminal Minds. A friend of mine read the script and said, “Hey, there’s a deaf role available, Troy. You should audition for it.” So I showed up and I saw that there were 15 hearing people in the waiting room. One person was practicing his signs there, and I was looking over at all these folks, and so it seemed like I was the only deaf guy auditioning for this deaf role. And so I auditioned and I tried my best and I gave it my all. They didn’t really expect that an authentically deaf actor would be auditioning for this. And sure enough, I got the role. One day you can check it out, it’s episode 801. I play a villain and the police are chasing me. It’s a really cool role. I play serial killer.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s cool. I want to ask you, how did you feel to audition for a role that called for a deaf character and to have non-deaf actors audition for the same role?

Troy Kotsur:

Well, I just had a question. How they were casting? How would they know the difference between a hearing person who’s playing deaf versus someone who’s authentically deaf? I really hope that they were able to see the difference. So my question was if I forgot to bring an interpreter and that was too much of a budget for them and this hearing person they could communicate directly with, but how can they tell how good this person is at signing or not or how fluent they are? I think that at the time, that authenticity wasn’t a big deal and it really took time to make that change. And I’m so grateful in our film CODA for our director Sian Heder and for Marlee Matlin to really fight for that authenticity. Originally, they wanted to use hearing A-list actors for marketing and ticket sales and all that bullshit. And finally, they saw success with true authenticity with CODA, with an ensemble deaf cast who were authentic and won multiple Academy Awards. And so I hope that folks value that authenticity.

Jay Ruderman:

What do roles look like or what’s the availability of roles now for you compared to the early days in your career?

Troy Kotsur:

It’s interesting because I read an article and it was saying that our film CODA was a game changer and that it really influenced so many different perspectives of folks at the studios and folks in power who want new stories from new perspectives. And before I became an Oscar Award winner, there weren’t so many opportunities. And of course after that, I am of course seeing more opportunities out there like Echo that I mentioned on Disney Plus. There was another TV series. Dahmer had some deaf roles. Dahmer on Netflix. And I’m seeing more and more out there and I’m seeing more deaf characters being developed. There’s a couple of deaf writers in the WGA now that are also writing for that show Echo. And so now we’re starting to see more and more deaf producers, deaf directors. And so I saw a lot of change in the last 10 years and I’m hoping for more. I want more deaf professionals so I could die with a smile on my face and see that Hollywood’s finally improved and there’s more room for us deaf professionals to be creative.

Jay Ruderman:

Amen. I hope so. How do you adapt for a role that is not written for deaf actor, but a role that you want to audition for?

Troy Kotsur:

Absolutely. Just like I was describing how Deaf West Theater worked, we’d adapt so many classic scripts like A Streetcar Named Desire, Hamlet, and all of the above. And as far as adapting a hearing character to a deaf character, let’s use Hamlet as an example, so imagine if Hamlet is deaf and his uncle who is the king really does not want a deaf person to become king and control the kingdom. And so there’s metaphor there. Really, he wants to kill him by poisoning him so that hearing folks can continue to run things. So think about that. So we make these small adaptations. The only challenge is communication, of course, regarding incorporating sign language and that type of thing.

There was a film that I was offered recently, a script. And the script was written for a hearing character or the character I was offered. We thought of a way to solve this problem. And so, if the father is the deaf role and then there’s a daughter that is a CODA, so think about just a father-daughter relationship and how they would communicate in sign language naturally. And it wouldn’t be much of a change. Rather than a phone call, you could change it to be a video phone or a FaceTime. Or if it’s too complicated, then you can just move things around and really make the story a bit more believable.

And so I was in an independent film that was called In Cold Light. The father role was initially written for hearing character, and he’s a rodeo writer in Canada. This role happens to, being a deaf character, it’s easy to adapt because you just imagined sign language rather than English. And so I was able to play this deaf rodeo writer who had a daughter and we communicated in sign language. And so we’re submitting to the festivals now. It’s in post-production. But it’s so easy to make these adaptations.

Jay Ruderman:

So first of all, I want to wish you a lot of success with your new film. And I want to talk a little bit about the film that made your household name, CODA. First of all, you mentioned the importance of having an interpreter who gets your emotions. I just wanted to say that your acceptance speech at the Oscars as a hearing person listening to your interpreter, I felt your emotion.

Troy Kotsur:

Don’t worry, Marlee, I won’t drop any F-bombs in my speech today. Instead, I really want to thank all of the wonderful deaf theater stages where I was allowed and given the opportunity to develop my craft as an actor. Thank you.

Jay Ruderman:

In addition to seeing your emotion, I heard your emotion through your interpreter, so I understand the importance of working with someone who really is able to interpret you emotionally. Let’s go back to talk about when you first got the script for CODA. What were your first thoughts when you read it?

Troy Kotsur:

Well, when I first read the script of CODA, I thought it was fabulous to finally see vulgar sign language and I thought, “Hey, you know what? I think hearing people can finally see what vulgar sign language looks like.” I thought that was pretty cool. And then the story really touched me and made an impact on me because I really felt like people in the audience need to see that relationship between father and daughter on screen and they needed to see that movie.

And going out onto the fishing boat was a bit difficult. I’m from Arizona, I’m not a fisherman. We don’t have an ocean in Arizona, if you know what I mean. And so it was a really challenging role and very fun for me to play the role of Frank Rossi. And so I worked with Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant, and of course we could interact in our natural language of sign language and share that culture. And so deaf culture really was at the center of the story. And I really wanted this role to allow hearing audiences to become a fly on the wall into deaf culture. And I’m so grateful that it all worked out and that we were able to have that experience.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, it’s a beautiful film. As someone who grew up in Gloucester, I was proud to see a film based in my hometown. And someone that grew up in boats, I understand it takes a while to get used to. But I wanted to ask you about drawing on real life experiences when you were preparing for this role. There’s a scene where your daughter, the actress that’s playing your daughter in the film, is a singer and you want to hear or feel her singing and you put your hands on her throat. I remember you describing the same experience with your daughter.

Troy Kotsur:

Oh, yes. I had some parallel experiences. So my daughter plays the piano and she plays the guitar. And really, I don’t know the difference. What’s the difference between acoustic guitar and electric guitar? I have no idea. And so I bought her both to allow her to play with and she said, “Hey dad, come over and you can feel this song.” She said, “Hey dad, come over and you can feel this song.” So I walked over to the piano and I set my hands on top of the piano and I could feel the vibrations from the song she was playing.

When she was younger, I would put my hand on her throat to feel the vibrations of her singing and I had that memory. And so we used that experience of our own personal moments with our kids in that film CODA. That happened pretty frequently. And so I don’t want to take my daughter’s passion away, I want her to have that experience, but I need to learn to understand it and learn how to live with it. It’s just like if my daughter loves Barbie dolls, I don’t know about those types of toys, but I still had to learn because I had a daughter.

Jay Ruderman:

And what did it mean to you to be the first deaf man to win an Oscar?

Troy Kotsur:

It felt like a blessing. It felt like all of the chips on my shoulders were evaporating and it was like dust off my back. And I really wanted to show that we have diversity and that we are talented deaf actors. We’re actors who just happened to be deaf. I just happened to be a deaf man. And I really had to keep the faith through the years, and it was really tough. There was a lot of struggle. And it was of course a once in a lifetime experience. I think it was really important for young deaf children to feel inspired by that moment too and the disabled community also.

Jay Ruderman:

I’m sure you’ve inspired thousands and thousands of young people with your success and have opened the paths for so many people. But maybe we can get back to talking again about why authenticity is important for deaf actors or for other actors in the disability community.

Troy Kotsur:

Unless you find a really wonderful professional liar who can play deaf or disabled, really it’s almost impossible to match our authentic performance, if you know what I mean, because we have that entire lifetime of that lived experience. We know all the nuance of that lived experience. And if I look at a hearing person talking, “Can I just sign what they’re saying?” It doesn’t really make sense, right? I think sometimes a hearing person might yell and a person who is hearing playing a deaf role might look at the loud noise rather than know how to behave. So I think there’s a lot of nuance with the way that we move our eyes and our bodies, and us deaf people just spot that inauthenticity immediately. And of course, we had an ensemble deaf cast with CODA, and it was such a different experience in how we behave as deaf people. There’s so much nuance there.

And so I think I recently saw a film called [inaudible 00:34:57]. I saw it at Slam Dance in Park City. And so they have authentically cast disabled folks in their film including one in a wheelchair and one who’s an amputee. I think it was an amazing film and it was funny. You saw that authenticity and you see things from a different perspective. I think anyone should be able to become a character who is an actor, but where are those opportunities for those disabled actors? I think it’s really important to follow the script, follow the story, but also give opportunities to those who are authentically disabled. Of course, there’s a lot of politics behind casting decisions as well.

Jay Ruderman:

Exactly. But now you’ve broken some barriers. You talked about in the past that the studios are looking for A-list actors, and now you are an A-list actor. And you’ve proven that a good film with great acting can be successful, financially successful and receive the awards that it deserves. So do you see that trend continuing to evolve?

Troy Kotsur:

I’ve been having a lot of meetings. I can say meetings about over 60 different projects. And so I’m just one actor myself. Sometimes when I’m offered a script, these folks are so willing to listen to notes, which I never saw in the past. And so I think that folks are more willing to listen and collaborate and work together in how to improve a story and how to make a story believable. Before I was an Oscar Award winner, it was like, “Who are you?” I was definitely an outsider. I was the underdog. Nobody knew about me. But then becoming an Academy Award winner, you see people begin to listen. And so perspectives have begun to change, and I’m so excited to see more opportunities to come. I’m really hoping that there’ll be several deaf roles added to even more stories too, because we have so many stories to tell.

Jay Ruderman:

Thank you for your leadership. I want to just shift and talk about a documentary you made as a tribute to your father. Can you tell us a little bit about your dad and your relationship to him?

Troy Kotsur:

When I look back on being young, I was so grateful to have a father who was included in my life because I happened to be deaf. My father saw that and he understood me. He didn’t try and fix me. He accepted me. He learned how to live with me and he learned sign language. My father took me out to so many different activities like camping, sports, water skiing, out in the snow, hunting, all of the above. My dad was really involved in my life when I was a kid. And remember back in the ’60s and ’70s, there wasn’t too much exposure to ASL or sign language. And 98% of hearing parents of deaf children don’t know sign language and can’t communicate with their own kids. And so I was so grateful to be able to communicate with my parents before I entered kindergarten.

It just so happened that my father was in a car accident when I was a teenager. He was hit by a drunk driver and he became paralyzed from his neck down and lost his ability to sign. So I told myself that it was really important to share this story in my documentary that parents should be included in their children’s lives. When you’re missing communication, you miss out on so much. Being deaf didn’t stop me and my father being disabled in a wheelchair didn’t stop him. And so I think it’s an important message for families out there to hear.

It’s not just about deafness, but it’s just about love and communication and caring about what’s best for your children. My dad was very busy. He was a police chief and he had to take care of four boys, but he still found the time to learn sign language and socialize with me. And so that’s our documentary in short.

Jay Ruderman:

I wonder if you could retell a very emotional part of the film where you gave a speech at your high school graduation and there was a videotape of it and showed it to your father in the hospital. If you could describe what his reaction was like?

Troy Kotsur:

So at my high school graduation, they asked me if I wouldn’t mind giving a speech. I was a bit conflicted because my dad couldn’t be there. He was in ICU just two months earlier and he still wasn’t well enough to be able to come to my graduation. So the idea was floated that one of my brothers filmed my speech on a VHS camera so I could bring it to my dad in the hospital. So we did. I gave the speech, my brother shot it, and we brought the VHS tape to the hospital room. And we were sitting there and I was so glad to watch my dad’s reaction. And so it was extremely emotional because we didn’t even know if my dad would survive. To be able to watch my graduation speech with his own eyes, it was so touching. And it meant so much to him to watch that and it meant so much to me as well. It was just such a beautiful and powerful moment.

Jay Ruderman:

And I understand that even after he was paralyzed, he went back to work and he continued his work as the police chief.

Troy Kotsur:

Yes. He went back to work. He worked for a few years for the police force, and he retired and then became a teacher. He was a professor at a community college in Mesa, Arizona, and he taught criminal justice law and so on. He was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but he didn’t let that stop him. So it was so inspiring because he didn’t care of what people thought about how he looked. He was still able to communicate with his voice. He was still able to teach classes. It was a big gap having sign language being missing, but we were still able to develop our own way of communicating. And we were able to be equal to just tell each other so much and to share our love.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, he sounds like an amazing person. And I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sure he’s missing from your life.

Troy Kotsur:

Thank you. I imagine that my dad is proud. I remember my dad was pretty worried about me. “Hey, Troy, you want to act? You’re trying to be in movies? Okay, just make sure you keep your day job and make sure you graduate from college and get your degree. Maybe something like engineering or something like that.” But I was pretty stubborn. And looking back, my dad was right. It was a really hard life, the life of an artist. And now I can give advice to my daughter in the future and say, “Hey, make sure you’re on the right track.”

Jay Ruderman:

Everything comes around 360.

Troy Kotsur:

Oh, absolutely. Everything that I learned looking back now, I have to be a responsible dad and be a good father for my daughter. I remember my dad’s last sentence before he passed, and I asked my dad, “Hey, what do you want me to do?” And he said, “Just do what’s best for your children.” That was his last sentence before he passed actually. It was unforgettable. “Just do what’s best for your child.” And so I do my best for my child. I’ve tried my best as a dad. I’m really proud of my daughter. She’s now off at college. She’s at Colorado State University.

Jay Ruderman:

I’m sure you’re an amazing dad. I have a similar story. My dad passed away in 2011. The last thing he said to me is… I was with him in the hospital and he said, “Go home to your family. You have a family to care for.” So sort of a similar story.

So Troy, I wanted to ask you about the industry that you’re in, the entertainment industry, and how do you think it’s going to look 10 years from now.

Troy Kotsur:

Well, I’m really hoping that I’ll be able to direct more and more by that time. When I was younger, it was my dream to be a director actually. But it was really hard, of course, not being so many opportunities for a deaf director. And so I’m hoping to develop some scripts that I’d like to direct by that time and so I can have hearing and deaf actors work together. It’s really important that hearing people will be able to have that awareness and that experience of working with deaf folks.

As far as the entertainment industry in general, I’d really like to see more deaf writers, more deaf directors, deaf stunt men, deaf PAs, all of the above. I think it’s really important that we establish workshops so that deaf folks can learn their craft. There’s really a gap. A lot of colleges and universities don’t really have access for the deaf or the disabled, so I’m really hoping we establish some workshops and some programs for our young deaf folks and our young disabled folks so we can be in to create this pipeline so they can actually work in the film industry.

I did workshops for theater, dance, and combat back when I was younger with so many great teachers. We did poetry, we did improv, we did acting, you name it. Those experiences and those workshops really helped me develop my craft as an actor and really hone that craft. And so there’s a big gap out there. So that’s what I’m hoping for, is that we can establish these workshops. I’m just looking for the money. I’m looking for a budget. So if you know anybody, let me know.

Jay Ruderman:

I will. Is there anything, any exciting projects for you in the future that you have the liberty to talk about?

Troy Kotsur:

So I went to the Curb Your Enthusiasm premier the other night, and I’m one of the guest stars that will be in the last season. And so episode 3 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I will be appearing in, which is exciting. I’ve been a big fan for many years. We had several extremely humorous moments, and that’ll be out later on this month, my episode in Curb Your Enthusiasm. I just completed an independent film called In Cold Light that hopefully will be released in the fall. And then I have another TV series where I’m a reoccurring guest star that I can’t announce quite yet. Of course, we were on hold because of all the strikes. And now the strikes are settled, we’ll be back to work pretty soon.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, I wish you all the best of luck. Is there anything I didn’t ask that you want to talk about?

Troy Kotsur:

Well, it’s just important for everyone out there who want to include a deaf storyline or a death actor, I like saying this, nothing about us without us. And so I’d like everyone to keep that in mind. I think that’s a great message for everyone out there to keep in mind, to work together.

Jay Ruderman:

Well, thank you Troy Kotsur for being my guest on All About Change. It was a great discussion and I wish you to go from success to success. And I’m sure we’ll see you on the screen many times in the future.

Troy Kotsur:

Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it, Jay. And thank you to our interpreter and thank you to your crew. It was a great chat today. And hopefully we can have another chat soon in the future. Take care of yourself.

Jay Ruderman:

Thank you. Troy Kotsur is a rare talent. With his acting abilities matched only by his welcoming spirit, I can’t wait to see what he does next. Special thanks to Troy’s interpreter, Justin Mauer, for his help with this interview. That’s it for today’s episode. Join us two weeks from today for my talk with longtime television journalist and author Jane Velez-Mitchell.

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